Thursday, January 13, 2011

Roots and Branches by Tom Shippey: A review

Unlike like a lot of literature that you read in school—the kind that requires you to pinch your nose to swallow—you don’t have to be told to enjoy The Lord of the Rings. You can love its sheer storytelling and that of works like The Silmarillion first, and perhaps only for that reason. But The Lord of the Rings is also a deep work worthy of study, and waiting behind the tales is a wealth of literary criticism for the further explorer.

Tom Shippey’s Roots and Branches (Walking Tree Publishers, 2007) ranks among the best Tolkien criticism I’ve read, which should come as no surprise, given that the author is the pre-eminent Tolkien scholar of our age. While I wouldn’t rate it as highly as Shippey's The Road to Middle-Earth or J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, Roots and Branches is a similarly illuminating and engaging read.

Roots and Branches collects 23 of Shippey’s essays and includes some previously published as well as newer/updated material. It takes a much broader focus than just Middle-earth: The essays include analyses not just of Tolkien’s fiction, but also his love for Old English poetry and Northern myth, his academic reputation then and now, and his lesser known works like “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.”

In particular I enjoyed “Tolkien and the Beowulf-Poet,” which sheds a tremendous light on Tolkien’s love and fascination with that poem (in many ways he considered himself a reincarnation of the anonymous writer of Beowulf). “Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy,” is a wonderful summation of the influence of the Northern myths on Middle-earth and is another favorite.

Like Tolkien Shippey is a philologist, so there’s a lot of discourse about the roots of words and how Tolkien derived his inspiration by extrapolating words like the variant forms of “elf” in Germanic. It may sound dry but it’s not: Shippey writes his essays like he speaks. They’re lively and he injects humor and personal commentary throughout, especially into the footnotes.

My favorite essay was “Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien’s Images of Evil.” Fantasy has often been labeled as lightweight escapism by its critics, but Shippey demonstrates how fantasy actively grapples with real evil in ways that works of “serious” literature avoid or fail to address. “Tolkien, Lewis, and Wolfe demonstrate between them that one of the major advantages of fantasy in the modern world is that it effectively addresses the major threats of the modern world, like work, tedium, despair, and bureaucracy,” Shippey writes.

For example, Shippey lays out a convincing case that orcs reflect our own characteristics of selfishness and self-centeredness. Orcs know what’s fair and unfair (they use the term “regular elvish trick” to describe Sam’s “abandonment” of Frodo, after Sam mistakes him for dead), and they exhibit a loyalty to their mates. But they refuse to apply morality evenly and lay it aside when it interferes with their own self-interests. “Orcish behavior is human behavior, and their inability to judge their own actions by their own moral criteria is a problem all too sadly familiar,” writes Shippey.

What about the Ringwraiths; are they pure evil? No, says Shippey. They’re an absence, a twisted thing, which Shippey demonstrates by showing us the philological roots of the word wraith (which derives from wreath, and writhe). Modern-day analogues can be found inside corporations or big government, Shippey says, in the soulless behavior of executives or the shuffling figures of cubicle workers who sacrifice their humanity for advancement or material gain. “No one is secure from the prospect of being a wraith,” Shippey writes. I myself have seen wraiths walking the halls in the (half) flesh in corporate America (and sadly at times feel like one myself).

Overall the essay is a brilliant refutation of critics like Richard Morgan who label The Lord of the Rings as a simplistic struggle of stainless good vs. irredeemable evil: it demonstrates that evil is not just some abstract presence or created by Sauron on some factory-line, but is “an element of goodness perverted, of evil as a mistake, something insidious,” to quote Shippey.

Shippey also wades into the Lord of the Rings films with “Another Road to Middle-Earth: Jackson’s Movie Trilogy.” As some may know Shippey was a consultant for the screenplay of the Jackson films (assisting with the proper pronunciation of Elvish, primarily) and was interviewed for the extras on all three discs.

Overall Shippey has a mixed but, in the main, a positive opinion of the films. He does lament some of the changes and notes in places how they strip The Lord of the Rings (the book) of some of its complexities. Shippey describes some of the cruder alterations as financially driven: Tolkien, working on his spare time, had no-one to consider but himself, while Jackson had a budget of hundreds of millions and had to consider popular appeal. He describes elements like Legolas’ shield-surfing, Gimli’s dwarf-tossing, and Arwen’s transformation into warrior princess as “playing to the gallery.” He says Jackson is guilty of “democratization” and “emotionalisation,” meaning he succumbs to a need to inflate the roles of minor characters, and also needlessly inserts a triangle situation into the journey of Gollum, Sam, and Frodo, in which Gollum competes with Sam for Frodo’s love. He has other criticisms as well, including the films' removal of Tolkien's conception of the workings of divine providence.

But Shippey says Jackson and his screenwriters were well-versed in the material and gives them credit for taking bits of Tolkien and using them in different places than they appear in the book to great effect (for example, moving parts of “The Shadow of the Past” and “The Council of Elrond” into the arresting prologue). He also thinks the film gets much of the broader themes and narrative core of the book right, including “the differing styles of heroism, the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, [and] the true cost of evil.”


David J. West said...

Great review BRian, I need to get Shippey's books.

And I don't think the movies would have lost anything (only gained) if 'The Two Towers' did NOT have Legolas shield surfing.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Unfortunately David, compared to some of the stuff that the Producers wanted, Shield surfboarding, was downright tame. At first they demanded a Hobbit be killed. Can you imagine?

But thats because they have no idea how to make movies, they are producers, essentially scum, akin to Lawyers and Insurance claims adjusters.

Brian Murphy said...

Yep, when there's that much money on the line, art and fidelity fall beneath the sway of the One Ring.

At least you can fast-forward over the shield-surfing.

Anonymous said...

The dwarf tossing and shield surfing and the like is jarring, but nothing compares to the perversion of Faramir's character. Shippey address that?

Jim Cornelius

Brian Murphy said...

Jim: Yes, he does, and he's rather critical of the changes, though he does try to theorize why they were made.

Shippey says that the Faramir/Denethor interplay (including Faramir's temptation to take the ring and hand it over to his father as a "mighty gift") is Jackson generating a theme popular in recent American film, "that of the son trying desperately to gain the love of his father, and of the father rejecting (till too late) the love of the son. It also appeals to American taste by making Denethor stand for old-world arrogance and hierarchy, while Faramir is converted from his obedience to his father by the intervention of the lower-class figure of Sam."

So more or less, Shippey thinks Jackson enlarged Sam's role by allowing his stout heart to "convert" Faramir, which (presumably) is what Jackson thinks modern audiences want. Plus in the extras either Jackson or one of his screenwriters didn't think the audience would buy a heroic, pure character who could so forthrightly reject the ring.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brian. Overall, I thought Jackson did very, very well with a nearly unfilmable work. Faramir was a major bummer for me, but I consciously decided I would not allow the terrible liberties taken with the character to destroy my ability to enjoy the films.

Jim Cornelius